In the spirit of the writers' strike and mild laziness I'm adding a ReRuns addition to this blog, which is essentially just personal essays I wrote for school. Some of you have read them before, but I feel like most haven't and therefore they aren't ReRuns at all! in fact, they're probably better to read because they have actually been proof-read and gone through revisions. I'll start with my last essay for Intro to Non-Fiction class sophomore year because I just somewhat sheepishly submitted it to Ploughshares. This will result in a well-worded rejection letter from them but everyone needs to get their first-rejection letter sometime and you might as well start near the top. Enjoy...call me when new episodes of the Office are on.
"Even God Hates Creed"
Even God Hates Creed
An Essay by Rodney Uhler
Like a lonely, mid-class prostitute, I feigned pleasure for two hours for a fast seventy-five bucks. Although the crowd around me gave me an odd sense of comradery, the repetitive movement and the dulling of my senses made me question my decision. I imagined being confronted by my partner later in life; I’d turn around, grasp the granite tabletop and speaking in a shameful whisper I’d say, “I was a broke college student. I was desperate for money and it seemed like an easy way out.” Although the shame will follow me, I realize there is no use denying it. I participated in a Christian Rock consumer focus group for the money. I lied about my musical taste, my faith and subjected myself to bands with names like: Angels Wake, P.O.D (Payable On Death), Living Sacrifice and, of course, Creed.
I entered college with the expectation that I would hold out on getting a job until the second semester, so as to better acquaint myself with the college lifestyle and academics. I lasted a month. Having been employed since I was fourteen, and having the financial outlook of a paranoid accountant, I couldn’t handle spending money without the reassurance of earning it back. Although I was hired at a local retail boutique, my hours weren’t extensive and I was eager to make up for lost income. One of my suitemates, Zach, told me that he was participating in a music focus group he found on the popular internet classified site, Craigslist, and that compensation was seventy-five dollars. He copied down a number for me to call. “Intriguing,” I said as I rubbed my chin signifying my deep thought. People would pay for you to share your taste? Although excited, I was suddenly annoyed that I had been sharing my musical taste fee-free for years. Perhaps, one needs a focus group to provide justification for putting a price on cultural opinion. Perhaps, this focus group was my justification for charging for entertainment advice. “What did I think of the new Sam Mendes movie? Do I think Samantha Mumba will have a comeback? Five dollars please.” I wondered if this was the end to my money troubles.
Before I could contemplate my financial future I needed to see if there were still open spots. Notepad and pen ready for detailed instructions I dialed the number. The voice of a middle-aged tired professional answered. She briefly explained what a focus group was, and what my job would be in that process. Then she began throwing curveballs, “We like to know if any of your close family or friends work in the record industry or radio?” Thinking that my sister’s recent Capital Records internship would make me seem more experienced for the focus group I responded, “actually my sister works for Capital Records.”
“Ohhhh really,” her voice exhaling all hope in me. Catching on to the fact that I had given the wrong answer I backpedaled with the speed of Lance Armstrong,
“Well of course that was a while ago. And it was only an internship! She isn’t doing that anymore. Nothing like that.”
“I suppose that will be alright”
Before I could regain my composure, she threw a second pitch,
“So tell me about your interest in Christian rock music, Rodney,” she stated as if I had introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Rodney, number one Christian rock fan!”
“Oh,” I was fumbling. “Well I do like rock music, and while I’m not the biggest Christian rock fan, I definitely have heard it before.” I was avoiding outright lying, while internally I was debating my pain-threshold for Christian Rock in comparison to my desire for some extra coin.
“But you like some Christian rock, right?” Her questions were now bordering on hints.
“Oh yeah! I mean I just might not be the most knowledgeable.” I tried my best to sound like a good Christian boy. I mentally reminded myself not to bring my “Gay Satanic Worshipers” magazine to the focus group. Most likely desperate to end her job, she said I was a good candidate and she’d email me directions.
Venturing out into a city I was barely acquainted with and armed with slightly vague directions I viewed myself as a modern day Columbus. My suitemate had a different scheduled time so I was co-pilot free. The directions had me venture off the main roads and into smaller, darker areas of the city. These were the types of areas where I imagined the phrase “That’ll teach ‘em” was often muttered late at night, which men from the Mafia considered “places of business,” and where young, supple Boston University freshmen girls were “last reported seen”. The temperature was brutally cold yet my increasing panic was overpowering my body’s discomfort. I pulled my jacket close around my body and wondered if this was a cruel prank by some intense Christians to punish me for lying about a faith I had no ties too. I saw what appeared to be one of those young, supple BU girls and tried to flag her down. “Excuse me,” I croaked out. She didn’t hear. “Excuse me!” I shouted, this time eliciting her to turn around, exposing a fear and distrust I rarely see directed at me. To her I was a potential rapist or sexual deviant. I was oddly ashamed but my desire to see this mission out and not accept defeat overcame her frightened gaze. Besides I was roughly her size and possess the upper body strength of a Girl Scout. I pulled out my directions and explained to her that I was pretty lost. She actually was a BU student and therefore knew the area pretty well. She pointed me in the right direction, probably mentally assessing my survival rate. Reading the BU newspaper the next morning she wouldn’t be surprised to see the headline, “Unknown Christian Rock Fan Goes Missing: Can Jesus Find Him?”
Like the light of heaven itself, my destination appeared to me in the form of an illuminated office building surrounded by a macadam purgatory. I literally sprinted into the building. Inside the lobby an easel was set up with a foam-core sign reading: VANGUARD CONSUMER RESEARCH, beneath the bold company letterhead were the words “Welcome Focus Group Participants” and an arrow pointing to a door directly to the left which featured a smaller version of the foam-core sign. I entered what looked like most doctors’ waiting rooms and made my way to the male receptionist seated behind a Formica desk. I signed in, and was given a group number and told it would be starting very soon. After finding my way to a thin, uncomfortable chair, I was ready to peruse the choice of magazines when a young woman stepped into the room from a hallway I hadn’t noticed, she called my group’s number. With slight hesitance I got up from the chair and looked around the room to see who my group-mates were. About seven males, all seemingly mute. We all silently followed the pencil-skirted young woman down the hallway and into a personality-less room. I was careful to remember the route we took in case I needed to make a quick escape. Through a slender window next to another door I could see my suitemate’s eyes fixed on something out of sight. I thought I saw a faint glow coming from the room, much like those described by victims of alien abductions, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Hi guys, and Welcome! My name is Kathy and I’m part of the Vanguard Consumer Research Group. At Vanguard we do all sorts of consumer research and focus groups on many different types of media, but as many of you know, today we will be focusing on Christian Rock themed music. Your input today will really have an effect on some decisions a new radio station will make, so get excited and I’ll explain how it all works…”
We would record our results on a 1-5 scale on a Scantron test, much like the ones that frequented many of my worst days in high school. The most physical activity involved was the perpetual shading in of tiny bubbles. We’d listen to about 30 seconds of a song and then record our opinion of it on the test sheets. The music was all programmed on a CD, so Kathy would only sporadically pop in to make sure there were no technological glitches, we had no questions, and to make sure we hadn’t attempted suicide via a sharp number 2 to the throat. At first I had the energy and enthusiasm of a loyal worker determined to earn my seventy-five dollars, regardless of my contrived interest, but like the small bubbles on the Scantron, my outlook gradually grew dark. The music was becoming one muddied mess of shouted vocals and guitar riffs. I would periodically glance up from my test sheet to see how the other participants were doing. Coincidence or not, it was all men in the room. Many were sporting casual attire such as hooded sweatshirts or layered t-shirts. Two dark haired, bearded thirty-somethings appeared to have known each other prior to our focus group family for they’d periodically whisper to each other. I began surveying the group and contemplating the reasons why each had decided to participate in the process. Was that man in the knit cap feeding a drug addiction? A knit cap worn indoors post twenty-five speaks highly of my theory but the rolled up sleeves on his button-down show exceptionally clean, needle-mark-free arms. Was the guy in the corner a new father in need of some extra money to buy gifts for his wife and daughter? Or for his mistress? Were any of these people actually fans of Christian rock? The man closest to me wearing a black band t-shirt that I couldn’t make out and black converse with neon-green laces could be a potential Christian rock fan, he seemed to show genuine enthusiasm during Kathy’s pep talk. The rest seemed to either be boarder-line unconscious or very interested in what was going on in the vicinity of their feet. While green-shoelaces-man was enthusiastic and had a fitting wardrobe, he could just be a more cunning liar. A professional focus-group fraud, perhaps? I seriously doubted that I was the only imposter in the group.
We were granted a five-minute break after the first hour in which I ventured back into the main waiting room. I wrestled a mint out of the surprisingly complicated candy jar next to the sign-in desk. After feigning activity on my cell phone, excusing myself to the building lobby as if the call was extremely private, I returned back to the room in time for Kathy to jump-start our musical adventure.
I suddenly realized that many of my bubbles were filled in towards the negative side, potentially exposing my fraudulence. I concentrated on picking answers that ran the gamut without seeming too contrived. Occasionally a random Coldplay song would come on and I’d suddenly feel better because I could give a truthful answer to a band I actually recognized. Ironically Coldplay was my savior in the Christian rock category, although I’m still debating their link to the genre. Was the song “Green Eyes” really about Jesus and not Gwyneth Paltrow? The only other band I recognized was Creed, a band fronted by the frequently shirtless and always creepy Scott Stapp. Their popularity in music coincided with the pinnacle of my poor musical taste. Besides their Top 40 hits, the only other opinion I have of the band came from a anonymous music critic; on my eleventh grade locker someone had written in black sharpie, “EVEN GOD HATES CREED!” I considered myself privileged to use that locker. I declined to share this sentiment with Kathy or the rest of focus group. The final CD played its last 30 second musical punishment and we were instructed to move on to the last, but comparatively exciting loose paper answer sheet where we circled names of bands we are familiar with or like. I circled a few based on creativity alone and left any with the words “Savior” “Damnation” or “Sacrifice” without circle or praise.
Filing back into the waiting room, spirits rose as the young male receptionist was now clutching a stack of envelopes that no doubt contained our financial reward. As if Army trained, we formed a tight line, stepped forward, gave our name and received our check. I tucked it safely inside my jacket and made my way out to the unnerving streets I had traversed before. With God on my side I made my way rape-free to civilization. Climbing out of the literal darkness and onto the streetlight filled neighborhood I felt as if I had spent years in the Vanguard prison, and would have to readjust to my newfound freedom. Waiting for the train I looked around at the others who were idly standing at the station. Were they silently judging me? I spotted one of the men from my group further down on the platform. We made brief eye contact. I wanted to exchange slight head nods that would show our brotherhood and reaffirm our unspoken link. Sometime in the future faceless radio executives will glance over a report that has a strong spike in approval of Coldplay music. They might question the participant’s faith or they might just increase the play count of “Green Eyes,” but either way I’ll know that my lack of faith and love of money will always overpower my better judgment. Check aside, next time God wants me to look through his CD collection, I think I’ll politely decline.